Friday, March 31, 2006

Off to the Low Countries for some hi-jinks

Yeah, I know, I was supposed to write about more of the ND/NF. Reality intervened, as it frequently does. First my hard drive imploded. Then my deadlines exploded.
That included two speaking engagements at the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival, which is still going on. If you are in that part of the world, I highly recommend it.

So I'm off for a week in Brussels and Amsterdam. Plenty of film connections there. Belgium has given us the Dardenne Brothers and Chantal Akerman. The Netherlands has given us Joris Ivens and Johan van der Keuken, who may be the most unfairly neglected documentarian in film history. I'll be shopping for DVDs, eating a lot more than is good for me, and generally having a fine time.

I may even find the time to post here if there is something of note to say.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

New Directors/New Films

I managed to miss all but one film from last year's New Directors/New Films program, as I struggled to finish my new book. Now the book is done -- just returned the first half to my editor with all the corrections and changes necessary -- and I managed a bit better turnout for the 2006 edition. (As if you care.)

Just my luck, this year's lineup, which looked so promising before the screenings started, turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Of the 25 features on offer, I've seen 14 and expect to catch up with a few more in the next week or so. And I can heartily recommend . . . 3 enthusiastically. It's not quite as bad as all that, because a couple of others are worth a look and one or two more are interesting if not fully realized. But this year's ND/NF includes some of the worst films I've seen this year. Given the large number of films, I'll be brief.

The keepers:
L'Iceberg -- Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy. A deliciously Tati-esque comedy with genuine visual wit and grace and hilarious performances from Abel and Gordon as a gawky married couple whose household is riven when she locks herself in a deepfreeze at the fast-food restaurant she manages. Once she emerges and is thawed out, Gordon becomes obsessed with heading for the Arctic and throws herself -- almost literally -- at a not-overly-bright fishing boat owner (Philippe Martz), while her no less maladroit hubby tries to decipher what has happened. A crisp 84 minutes, the film makes great use of widescreen for comic value and is a complete delight. The short that accompanies it, "Terra Incognito" by Peter Volkart, is also a wry, drily witty farago, a sort of Chris Marker joke documentary about arctic exploration that includes such stopping points as Nanopol and Nova Suburbia (where I grew up).

Twelve and Holding -- Michael Cuesta. I haven't seen Cuesta's debut film, L.I.E., but his second feature is smart and dark, alternately funny and very sad, and easily the most astute portrait of life in Nova Suburbia since Hartley's Trust. In a year in which seemingly every American indie is about kids on the cusp of adolescence, this one is the by far the most intelligent, deeply felt, funny and fully realized of the lot. Although the cast that seems like a reunion of Law and Order alumni (Annabella Sciorra, Bruce Altman, Tony Roberts, Adam Lefever, Mark Linn-Baker, Jayne Atkinson), it is the kids, unsurprisingly, who score the biggest points, especially Zoe Weizenbaum as a lovesick preteen with designs on a traumatized ex-fireman. Really intelligent, graceful filmmaking by Cuesta.

October 17, 1961 -- Alain Tasma. This political drama, based on historical events leading up to and on the eponymous date, when Paris police commissioner Maurice Papon essentially authorized a bloody round-up of peaceful demonstrators, Algerians who were supporters or members of the FLN, has the subtlety of blunt force trauma, but it is just as effective. As historical recreation and drama, it is reminiscent of Bloody Sunday, which it resembles structurally, but visually it has a sternness that is impressive. The film's pacing is a bit lugubrious, but its deliberateness also gives it much of its force. Tasma makes fewer concessions to audience sensibilities than Costa-Gavras and Pontecorvo -- the most obvious cross-references for the film -- and the result is grave but impressive.

Those are the three must-see films from the baker's-dozen-plus-one that I've seen so far. I'll continue with the not-quite offerings and absolute duds tomorrow.

The New Directors/New Films series is co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art from Wednesday, March 22 through Sunday, April 2. For information on schedules of screening times and venues, click on the links for either organization on the right-hand side of the page.

A thought from Franz Kafka

When it comes down to you against the world,
bet on the world.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A tragedy that never seems to end

Every few years, someone writes that the AIDS epidemic is over. Then one of the clients on my GMHC Buddy team dies and I want to kick the shit out of the journalist who wrote that story.

Of course the AIDS epidemic isn't over. It's not over for the millions of Africans who are dying or orphaned. It's not over for the millions who will be diagnosed in the Indian subcontinent and China. It's not over for the over 40 million people around the world who are infected with AIDS.

And it's not over for the hundreds of men and women who rely on Gay Mens Health Crisis here in New York for information, education, advocacy and help. That's why after a six-month leave, I rejoined GMHC's Buddy Program this year. I have been working with people with AIDS for over 18 years and I'm still waiting for the Manhattan Project for AIDS that Bill Clinton promised, the billions of dollars in AIDS funding that George W. Bush promised. I expect I'll still be waiting for the Federal government to do something long after either of those two are long in the ground.
Indeed, what we've gotten most recently is the end of Ryan White funds for GMHC. So the Buddy Program now runs on a shoestring and a prayer.

Why am I telling you this? Because the 2006 AIDSWalk New York is taking place on May 21st and, as I have done for all but two of the 20-something years of the event, I will be walking to raise money for GMHC's programs. And now, we need the money more than ever.

What does this have to do with film? I suppose on some level absolutely nothing, except that when the epidemic started and I began counting the people I knew who had died, they were mostly people I had worked with in theater or film, and I don't need to tell you -- if you are reading this blog -- how many actors, directors, writers, designers, artists were taken from us by this fucking disease.

Here's your chance to do something about it. Please go to my AIDSWalk page and make a donation. I don't ask readers for money, I don't sell ad space on this blog and won't. But this is something you really ought to do, not for me, but for yourself.

Water, water everywhere . . .

A couple of years ago I was speaking at a screening of Christine Jeffs's Sylvia and someone asked me why there was so much water in the movie. At least, that's what I thought she asked. I started to talk about Jeffs's first film, Rain, and the possibility that the setting of both films on islands (New Zealand and England) and blah blah blah. My interlocutor interrupted me and said, "No, why is there so much water in the movies in general?"

Good question.

In fact, it was something I have thought about occasionally and, happily, I had an answer. A surprisingly simple answer, at that.

Filmmakers like water because it looks so good on film. Really. Rain combined with light is visually fascinating and adds texture to any sequence. And bodies of water are a unique visual phenomenon, at once solid and mobile, both deep space and flat. I don't know how you could ever get a chance to see it, since it's not on disk or tape (to the best of my knowledge), but the first few minutes of Manoel da Oliveira's Doomed Love is nothing more than a long take of the surface of the ocean, undulating slowly, an image that is at once both shallow and deep space, and that dichotomy introduces all the dialectical tensions that run through the next four hours of the film, both visually and thematically.

What made me think of this? I don't remember the initial trigger -- Ira Hozinsky and I were talking about this after a screening at the New Directors series (on which more later this week) -- but I just received a press release that brought it back to the forefront of my consciousness. The Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAMCinemathek (link on the right) is doing a quick mini-tribute to the late Shelley Winters called "Shelley Winters vs. The Water," April 5-25. Very funny, of course, since the first thing that jumped into many minds when she died last month was The Poseidon Adventure. But ol' Shelley ended up in the drink frequently in her film career, and BAM is also showing A Place in the Sun, Night of the Hunter and Lolita as well, on consecutive Tuesdays. Anyone who has seen Hunter will carry in the darkest recesses of their subconscious the terrifying/beautiful image of Winters in the car at the bottom of the lake. That image is a perfect example of what water can do for a filmmaker.

Monday, March 06, 2006

If you're looking for Oscar . . . .

. . . you came to the wrong place.

And how.

I barely register the Academy Awards. I seldom watch the entire show; in fact, most years I don't watch any of it. I'm sorry I missed Jon Stewart's monologue (and anyone who wants to fill me in on the highlights, I'd be happy to hear it), and glad I caught a few minutes here and there. But the fact is, the Best Picture award going to Crash didn't surprise me at all, anymore than I was shocked that at the Iras we gave it our Dramamine award. It's a smug stew of liberal pieties, filled with self-satisfaction at the idiotic insight that "deep down inside we're all a bit racist, so why can't we all just get along together." The award is about what I'd expect from the main company in a company town. Fuck 'em.

If you scan my ten-best list below you won't be too surprised at my attitude. In case you haven't figured it out by now, I've pretty much given up on mainstream American film. Which pains me no end, because I began writing about film in 1971, when Ford and Hawks and Hitchcock and Cukor and Welles and Preminger and Edwards and and Aldrich and Wilder were all alive and most of them (except Ford) were still working. I got to cover the last works of all those giants, and my all-time ten-best list always includes several Hollywood films.

Not lately.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Rendezvous continued

When the dust cleared, I finally ended up seeing only five more films in the Rendezvous with French Cinema series at the Walter Reade. The price of doing business.

Over the last few years, the Rendezvous went from being one of my favorite events to one that I dreaded. This year was a huge swing back towards the positive side, with several films that I eagerly look forward to seeing again ASAP.

Briefly, then, the other five that I haven't discussed yet:

Palais Royale -- Valerie Lemercier.
Strange time for a comedy about a "people's Princess" a la Diana. I mean, the Di craze is so, well, so 1990s. Lemercier, who is best remembered for her lovely performance in Claire Denis's Friday Night, is apparently a popular stand-up and has cracked film bigtime (she's in at least one other film in this series). As a performer she is not without charm, an eccentric female clown not quite in the tradition of Lucille Ball, without the slapstick skills of Ball or Carole Lombard, or the determined wackiness of Ginger Rogers or the warmth and dry wit of Jean Arthur or Irene Dunne or . . . well, she's painless enough. As a writer-director, she has not sense of structure or timing. In its relentless mean-spiritedness, Palais Royale is refreshingly unworshipful around its royals, but the film is an utter mess, albeit with a few belly laughs.

Not Here to Be Loved -- Stephane Brize
(Anybody know how to do accent marks here? 'Cause Brize has two accents egues and I can't figure this stuff out.)
Here's a film that divided my friends and colleagues rather sharply. Ronnie Scheib (of Variety) and I both liked it. Ira Hozinsky hated it. (I think Daryl Chin wasn't too thrilled either, but you'll have to check his blog to be sure.) The split, I think, is based on our comparative reactions to what is, admittedly, a rather predictably sentimental plotline. Patrick Chesnais, in a wonderfully glum performance, is a bailiff, an officer of the court whose job consists mainly of bugging people about unpaid bills leading to evictions and repossessions. Now 51, he is barely living, a prisoner of a deadening routine of meaningless work, a loveless relationship with his aged father and his feckless son, who is reluctantly joining him in the firm. He starts gazing out of his window at a dance school across the street and one day goes there to study tango . . . . It's not Shall We Dance? (neither the Suo, which is a delight, nor the ghastly American remake), because this is a film that stoutly resists anything resembling exuberance or levity. Rather, Brize keeps the tone low-key, almost Bressonian in its rigorous detachment. She uses long takes brilliantly to explore the awkwardness of social situations, their terrifying potential for embarrassment. And I think that is what makes the film work despite its admittedly hokey ending. Of course you can see how the relationships between fathers and sons will be worked out, whether he will get the girl, but Brize's steadfast refusal to treat the material with anything but detachment -- not ironically, but almost clinically -- lowers the treacle quotient radically.

Heading South -- Laurent Cantet
At a time when mainstream American film has utterly abandoned any interest in issues of class (or in how people make a living, for that matter), it's fascinating to look at the work of Laurent Cantet, a filmmaker who is primarily concerned with precisely those issues, class and work. Even his new film, Vers le sud (Heading South), while set in a leisure paradise, the tourist side of Haiti in the late 1970s, is about the pernicious influences of those two pressing realities as much as it is about race or the nature of a repressive society. Cantet's protagonists are three women who have come to Haiti for sex, quite simply, sex with attractive younger men. Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) is a college professor from Boston, Brenda (Karen Young) is a recent divorcee from Atlanta, Sue (Louise Portal, in the most unflashy role of the trio) is a warehouse forewoman from Montreal. Brenda and Ellen find themselves in competition for the attentions of Legba (Menothy Cesar), a bright young man who is perfectly contented to live off their favors.

Early in the film, there is a shot of Brenda walking along the beach. The camera tracks along with her, with only the horizon visible in the background; with the camera moving alongside her, she appears to be standing still. It's a perfect metaphor for Ellen and Brenda's situation, with each struggling against the reality of their situation -- neither of them is going to "win" Legba and take him home to the States, and as Ellen says when taunting Brenda, they couldn't even if they did convince him to come away. The characters in Cantet's films (Human Resources, Time Out and now Heading South) are trapped by economics and by the class roles that accompany such a stern reality. The class structures are subtly indicated in this film, but omnipresent nonetheless.

One other grace note that I found particularly appealing, although I need to see the film again to see how Cantet is using it: Heading South is a film with an unusually variegated auditory texture, built on the contrasts between many different kinds of Francophony: Ellen's precise, almost literary French with her discernible English accent, Brenda's American-laden French, Sue's Quebecois and her own accented French, the Creole spoken by the Haitians among themselves and the various accents they bring to the French they speak to the tourists. There are more class differentiations at work here, but I need another viewing to unravel the patterns at work.

And I can't wait to do so. This is easily one of the best films shown in this program in many years, on the same level of ambition and achievement as the Techines and Chabrols that have highlighted the Rendezvous in the past few years.

Le Petit Lieutenant -- Xavier Beauvois
Beauvois is one of the darlings of Cahiers, which ain't a bad thing, but I must admit that this is my first exposure to him. It's not hard to figure out what attracts them to his work, the same thing I like about this police procedural is its dry, uninflected coolness. Jalil Despert plays the title role, a young Lt. fresh out of the national police academy who is assigned to the Homocide squad in Paris. Nathalie Baye, his immediate superior, is just returned to active duty after a long stint behind a desk resulting from a serious drinking problem. They begin working on a case involving the murder of a homeless Russian immigrant worker and . . . .

Sounds like an episode of Law and Order stretched to almost two hours, except that Beauvois uses his camera like a scalpel and the film is richer in texture than any TV show could be in one hour. (TV at its best works on the accumulation of detail over many episodes; texture is the result of such an accumulation.) Baye won a Cesar (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for her performance, which I thought rather ironic since the best thing about it is how unshowy it is; no American actor ever wins an Oscar for this kind of understatement. But she's terrific, as is the entire ensemble. This is another film I can't wait to see released here.

Zim and Co. -- Pierre Jolivet
This, however, is the kind of film that is more likely to get commercial distribution here. It's a painless, lightweight teen comedy about a slightly feckless young man (Adrien Jolivct, the son of the director and quite pleasant) who suddenly finds himself facing a prison term resulting from a fairly scooter accident, unless he can find a full-time job; he gets the job but it requires a car, which means he needs a driver's license and so on. There's nothing really wrong with the film; it's harmless fun and the young cast is appealing. But Jolivet directs it as if it were a 90-minute-long Mountain Dew commercial.

Monday morning marks the beginning of press screenings for the New Directors/New Films festival, so it's up with the rooster and off to the cinema. Tough life, huh?